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Wayne Gooding follows a new trail that celebrates one of Germany's oldest music destinations.

There's still a long way to go with its application, but the old trading centre of Leipzig, Saxony's biggest city by population, about 150 km. south of Berlin, is working hard to win UNESCO World Heritage Site status as a city of music. Key to the application was the opening last May of the Leipziger Notenspur, a 5.1 km. music trail through the city marked out by a series of stainless-steel shapes embedded in the pavement. There are currently almost two dozen stops along the way, all closely associated with the rich and long roster of musical figures who lived and worked in the city--J. S. Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Clara and Robert Schumann, Edward Grieg and, of course, a native son who will receive special attention in 2013 on the 200th anniversary of his birth, Richard Wagner. Add to this eminent but incomplete roster such musical institutions as the Gewandhausorchester, one of Europe's oldest and best ensembles, dating back to 1743, an opera company founded in 1693, and the splendid St. Thomas Boys Choir, which last year celebrated its 800' birthday, and the city's central place in music history seems unassailable. But as with the city of Dresden, about an hour by train to the east, it's only since the fall of Communist rule that Leipzig has been in any position to reclaim and proclaim its musical heritage.


Leipzig was granted city and market rights in the late 12th century and has been a commercial centre ever since. It owes its financial and cultural growth to its happy position at the junction of the two biggest trade routes of the Holy Roman Empire--the east/west Via Regia, which at its greatest extent could get you from Paris all the way over and up to Riga and Novgorod, and the north/southVia Imperii, which ran from Rome up to Stettin (now Szczecin) on the Baltic Sea. Leipzig has hosted trade fairs pretty throughout its history. The Coffe Baum, a regular haunt of Schumann and his friends that started serving coffee in 1694, is testament to the city's already well-established trading prowess, as are the many arcades that in the old days housed traders and merchants and had wide courtyard entrances to accommodate freight transports. One of the city's oldest and most popular restaurants, Auerbach's Keller, memorialized in Goethe's Faust as a stopover of Mephistopheles with Faust, is all that's left of one of the trading complexes. Towards the end of the 196 century, the merchants stopped selling trade goods and started to open showrooms, setting the stage for the kind of activity that fuelled Leipzig's economy through the 2001 century and still does today. The big trade fairs brought international visitors to the city even through the Communist era, though the faceless, monolithic trading halls of that era have now been replaced with more modern building.

With trade over the centuries came wealth and a rich cultural life. In music, the centrality of Bach and his music at the St. Thomas Church (now handsomely documented in the wonderfully interactive Bach Museum across the road) are well established, but the depth of Leipzig's musical heritage has only recently been celebrated after renovation of some other key sites--such as the Mendelssohn House, which has had an authentic period rextoration to show what it was like when he lived and worked there--and in initiatives like the Notenspur designed to bring visitors face-to-face with the history.


That a city with a continuous musical history from Bach and Telemann through Mendelssohn and Wagner to such later figures as Gustav Mahler (a conductor at Leipzig Opera) and Kurt Weill (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny premiered here) has only recently started to flash its musical credentials in earnest may seem odd, but it's because, like most centers in the former East Germany, Leipzig has only over the past two decades had a chance to rebuild from wholesale destruction of World War II and the stringencies of the Communist era following. The city lost all of its old theatres and many prominent cultural venues in extensive bombing, and until recently restoration was sporadic. Despite the antiquity of its opera company, the Leipzig opera house dates from 1960, the new Gewandhaus concert hall on the opposite side of Augustusplatz from 1981. The Mendelssohn and Schumann houses, as well as other institutions like the Grassi Museum, which houses Leipzig University's famed museum of musical instruments, have had much more recent makeovers.

The 2013 Wagner anniversary will give that composer more prominent visibility in the city again, though pretty well all the sites associated with him are long gone. He was born in the House of the Red and White Lion on the Bruhl, at the time a busy commercial street running parallel to what is now the ring road, not far from the railway station. The Wagner house was pulled down before the end of the 19th century, replaced eventually by a department store. After that building was badly damaged by bombing, part of its exterior was clad in a cheap aluminum facade in the post-war years that, curiously, has now just been restored as an historical feature in the newly opened Hofe am Bruhl shopping centre. Situated just off Richard Wagner Platz, the site of the Wagner residence is to be marked by a plaque.

Perhaps more authentic is the new permanent Richard Wagner Museum, slated to open in the Alte Nikolaischule, where he went to school, on the eve of his May 22 birthday. The major inaugural exhibition, organized by the Leipzig Wagner Society, is titled The Young Richard Wagner--1813-1834. Not to be outdone, the Leipzig. Museum of City History opens Richard Wagner--Between Leipzig and Bayreuth on Feb. 13, the 130th anniversary of the composer's death, while the Grassi Museum waits until the May birthday bash to launch its Musical instruments for Richard Wagner exhibit.

Ironically, what may likely not be ready for the anniversary is a major Wagner monument, a companion for the statues of Bach and Mendelssohn and other prominent figures around the city. They've been trying to erect one in Leipzig pretty well since the composer's death, but for one reason or another--the death of the originally commissioned Max Klinger, the abandonment of a second project by Emil Hipp after the war in part because of Nazi support for it--none of the initiatives has come to fruition. The plinth for Klinger's design, with scenes from Wagner music dramas in relief, sits just round the corner from the former Stasi secret police building (and now museum), and a new design has been accepted from the Karlsruhe-based contemporary sculptor Stephan Balkanhol. It has the young Wagner in color standing in front of a giant black silhouette. The design has proved controversial and the unveiling has yet to appear on the official schedule of the birthday celebrations. Without it, the city will have to be content with the bust of the composer in the park behind the opera house.


There is, of course, lots of music in Leipzig planned for the celebration, starting early in the year and continuing on through the May anniversary (for details, Perhaps the most appropriate musical venture is a joint production between Opera Leipzig and the Bayreuth Festival of the composer's first completed opera, Die Feen. To be staged by the Montreal-based director/design team of Renaud Doucet and Andre Barbe and premiered in February, Die Feen wasn't written in Leipzig and indeed wasn't performed in the poser's lifetime. But since it was written when Wagner was only 20, it's about as close as we can get to hearing what was on his musical mind at a time when he still counted himself a Leipziger.

With thanks to the German National Tourist Office and Leipzig Tourist Service for logistical assistance in preparing this article
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Title Annotation:Letter from Leipzig
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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